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My Day Ziplining Just Helped Me Handle Amy Coney Barrett’s Nomination to the Supreme Court

First published September, 2020.

Last weekend, just as news was breaking that our megalomaniac of a president had nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, I was smack in the middle of learning a shocking lesson.

I want to share my newfound realization with you, but first, context is key.

I have always been an inside girl. My go-to activities are Broadway shows, rock concerts, shopping, and fine dining. A few months ago, I’d have said my favorite places were casinos, concert halls, restaurants, and department stores.

Accordingly, COVID has been un-f*cking-bearable for me. Of course, we’re all under tremendous stress, and everyone is walking their own path of coronamisery. For me, what’s so hard is that in addition to the abject wretchedness of remote learning and no-contact everything, the usual things I do to unwind simply aren’t available. And the alternatives don’t seem to work for me. I’m too anxious to read, I don’t want to bake, and my family doesn’t do the board game thing.

And dammit, I tried to acclimate to what irritating people insist on calling “the new normal.” Knowing that Darwinist “fitness” wasn’t so much about strength as it was about adaptivity, I was determined to be as flexible as possible. I leaned into the incessant zooming, I helped my husband shop for the comfiest sweatpants, and I got a recipe for the perfect sourdough starter. Let it never be said that I was too rigid.

Last spring, in a desperate attempt to avoid a psychotic break induced by cabin fever, I started walking daily with friends. Inexplicably, the walking turned into working out, then hiking, kayaking, and learning pickleball. Mostly, these are things I’ve done before, but never with particular purpose or regularity. Now, I’ve got two kayaks of my own, multiple pairs of specific-function athletic footwear, and a real understanding of what “wicking” fabric does. I’m in (slightly) better shape, and have found new appreciation for the natural world around me. Go, me. Bring on the trail mix.

So, it is within this context of the new “outdoorsy me” that I went on a weekend trip to the Adirondacks with some folks from our neighborhood COVID bubble. We’d see the leaves, go hiking with the kids, enjoy the crisp mountain air, and eat freshly-picked apples while we took in the beauty of upstate New York. I’d wear my new clothes (the ones with warming “technology” and multiple zippered pockets), and I’d finally get to use those carabiners I found on sale at the outlets.

One friend suggested we take the kids to a ziplining course, and I was so enraptured with the notion of channeling my inner John Denver that I agreed-- without reading any of the actual details.

Sidebar: I love exciting things, just so long as they don’t require coordination on my part. Ziplining and roller coasters are awesome, skiing and SCUBA diving are a hard no. I have never been able to rely on my own physical ability to do difficult things. I’ve been overweight most of my adult life. I have terrible balance. I’m clumsy. All of my upper body strength is concentrated on the constant task of carrying around my boobs, and I’ve got little to spare for athletic endeavors. And I promise, this isn’t a self-deprecating thing. There is plenty could brag about, but being sure-footed and graceful aren’t those things. And that’s okay. You can’t have everything, and I got to be an excellent speller and have good skin.

As it turned out, this ziplining place was also an “extreme climbing challenge.”

For anyone lucky enough to have avoided this particular brand of torture, allow me to elaborate.

We’re talking scaling multiple crossings between trees, while suspended 50-100 feet from the ground. Tree-to-tree obstacles of increasing difficulty are set, obviously engineered to induce full-blown panic attacks in anyone who isn’t an Olympic gymnast. Sometimes, you’re expected to swing between the trees, Tarzan-style. Other times, you must traverse a series of ceramic balls suspended from above. You’re harnessed so that you (theoretically) won’t fall to your death at the bottom of a canyon; if you slip, though, the only option is to hoist yourself back onto a tightrope using (again, theoretically) solely your upper body strength. It’s like American Ninja Warrior-meets-Indiana Jones, and it’s obviously for people who are in superb physical shape. It is not for chubby middle-aged moms who get vertigo during Zumba class.

As soon as I faced the first rope-bridge, I knew that the whole thing was a monumental mistake. I was there for a leisure activity with my husband and 11-year-old daughter. Instead, it was something out of a nightmare. Even with all my recent exercising, this was well beyond my abilities; at 45, there was a solid chance I’d end up with a serious injury – or at least epic embarrassment.

I cried some panic tears. But there was a group of teenage boys behind me, and they were going to get annoyed if I didn’t get out of their way. And the only way to do that was to go across that bridge.

So, I crossed. Desperately, with intense terror, and with audible screams. I wasn’t so much determined as I was utterly out of other ideas. Even after that crossing, there was no way down. It seemed as though it would never end.

I white-knuckled it for three solid hours.

Amazingly, I didn’t fall once. As it turns out, intense fear can have some truly surprising physical side effects.

Afterward, when the adrenaline and nausea subsided, I tended my blistered palms. I was struck by a thought: perhaps I should take a note about how to think about “this moment.” 2020, and all of its disasters, is an “extreme” challenge of its own.

It sucks.

Like really, really, objectively sucks.

It’s terrifying.

No normal person is equipped for it.

I’m especially not equipped for it.

I don’t want to be here.

I’m helpless.

No one else can help me either.

I feel like it must have an ending, but I can’t see that ending, and I have no real confidence that the end is ever approaching.

Okay, and here’s the lesson: I survived, and with significantly more success than I would ever have imagined. Apparently, I had a power reserve that could only be activated by absolute catastrophe.

I had been fueled by terror and adrenaline, and I didn’t slip. No one had to rescue me. I didn’t break any bones.

I knew my limits. I knew that this exceeded my limits. I survived anyway.

As it turns out, we don’t actually know our limits for withstanding adversity. We think we do. But we are wrong. And that’s because adversity has the power to --suddenly and without warning-- work magic on our individual abilities. It is the most delicious way to be wrong.

The election, SCOTUS’ new handmaiden, Breonna Taylor’s death, your family members who think masks are a liberal conspiracy – all of it. It is all just as bad as you think it is. This moment is an unparalleled shitshow, and anyone who disagrees isn’t paying close enough attention.

But we can withstand, accomplish, and even change far more than we know. The limits we knew before2020 only applied to our lives before 2020. The rules are different now. Part of what’s so disturbing about Trump and the pandemic is that they upend that about which we’ve always been sure; also true, though, is that the uncertainty applies to ourselves as well. The world may not be what we thought it was – but now, neither are we.

At 45, we know things about ourselves. We know which Netflix shows we’d like and which we should leave for the teenagers. We know which outfits are a little “too much” for us, and we know which activities are just beyond our abilities. But apparently, given the right set of circumstances, we can sometimes be wrong. That wrongness is the precious gift of possibility, and it’ll help us get through this – even if “this” still has a while to go.

None of my realization is to minimize the horror show of the past [insert your preferred time frame between 2016 and 2020 here]. It’s simply to point out that our ability to withstand, to persevere, to keep moving forward – is far more than we know.

That’s the lesson. And I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly what to do with it. But I had to share.

We are all on our own courses, each walking our own extreme road right now. You have my permission to ignore the asshats who insist on encouraging you to clean out your closets or lose 30 pounds or take up knitting.

I’ll not go “extreme climbing” again soon. Hopefully, I will never see a rope bridge ever again in my entire life. But if one does appear in front of me, I will know that it’s possible for me to get across without falling.

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